Ready to quit Afghanistan, Canada PM tells Bush

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, reinforcing an ultimatum over Afghanistan, told U.S. President George W. Bush on Wednesday that Ottawa would withdraw its military mission next year unless NATO sent in more troops, officials said.

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper stands to speak during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa January 30, 2008. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Canada, which has 2,500 soldiers in the southern city of Kandahar, is fed up with the refusal of other NATO nations to send more forces to the violent region of Afghanistan. The Canadian combat mission there is due to end in February 2009.

Harper said on Monday he accepted the recommendations of an independent panel that urged Canada to end the mission unless NATO provided 1,000 extra soldiers and Ottawa obtained helicopters and aerial reconnaissance vehicles.

A spokeswoman said Harper had talked to Bush on Wednesday about the report.

“He underscored that, unless Canada was able to meet the conditions specified by the panel of additional combat troops and equipment from NATO allies, Canada’s mission in Afghanistan will not be extended,” she said.

White House spokesman Tony Fratto said Bush pointed out that the United States had already agreed to sent more soldiers to Afghanistan.

“The president noted the deployment of 3,200 additional U.S. Marines to Afghanistan, as well as his continued commitment to work with NATO to enhance its commitment to the Afghanistan mission,” Fratto said.

It was not clear whether the additional U.S. troops would meet Canada’s condition for more soldiers in Kandahar.

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said the addition of 2,200 U.S. Marines to southern Afghanistan would provide a lot of the combat power needed in that area.

“The addition of the MEU (marine expeditionary unit) will greatly enhance the coalition’s combat capabilities in RC-South and without placing an additional burden in an area already strapped for airlift because they come with their own transportation,” Morrell said.

NATO says it agrees with Canada about the need to bolster its peace operation, but the alliance dismisses the idea that members are dragging their feet.

“Canada has played and continues to play a very important role in a strategically important part of Afghanistan and we would like to see that role continue,” NATO spokesman James Appathurai said in Brussels.

“Certainly NATO will, to the extent that we can, support any efforts to garner more forces, including for the south. We have a long-standing request to nations to provide additional resources.”

So far, 78 Canadian soldiers and a diplomat have been killed in Afghanistan since Ottawa deployed troops there in 2002. An Ipsos-Reid poll released on Saturday said 50 percent of Canadians backed he mission and 46 percent opposed it.

Reporting by David Ljunggren and Randall Palmer in Ottawa, Jeremy Pelofsky in Washington and Ingrid Melander in Brussels; editing by Rob Wilson